So, what's the weather going to be like in Denver today?
Accuweather says it's currently 12° Fahrenheit. The high today is 16°, and the temperature is expected to drop back down to 8° by the evening, when the game will be finishing up. There will be snow, too, if not blankets of it: Flurries fell around noon, just to make the field nice and frozen for warm-ups, and more are expected around 4 and 5 p.m. as the game is kicking off. At 6 a.m. this morning, it was -6° in Denver. and if the game goes to overtime, we may see
FOOTBAW at 26° below freezing.
How does the weather affect the vaunted "thin air" advantage for the Broncos in Denver?
Denver teams boast (and they do boast) an extra home-field advantage because the air in the Rocky Mountains is thinner (less dense, with fewer oxygen molecules packed into each of whatever unit you feel like measuring air with) than the air closer to sea level. At least one person (Champ Bailey) has claimed that Peyton Manning is well-suited to the unique conditions: "You could see the fatigue," Bailey told ESPN, after the Broncos beat the Steelers in Week 1. "Peyton has really opened up our offense. If we're in a shootout, it definitely works in our favor."
Maybe less so today, though: Cold air is denser than warm air, and not only will the Ravens have the luxury of breathing as if they were closer to sea level, the ball may not sail the way it does on a warm day in Colorado. Why did the Broncos even try for home-field advantage? (Apart from next week, I mean.)
Can you make some vague predictions about how the weather might affect the game?
Can I! If the Ravens have a clear advantage in this game, it's in their rushing attack, which averaged 118.8 yards per game despite the popular perception that Cam Cameron (and subsequently Jim Caldwell, after Cameron was relieved of his duties midseason) forgot about Ray Rice for long stretches of each game. Not including Week 17, for which all but seeding was sewn up for the Ravens, Rice averaged about 17 carries per game, and every Ravens defeat resulted in jeremiads from fans about why the Ravens coaching staff was ignoring their star running back. In a game like today, maybe the Ravens will finally unleash the sure-handed (1 fumble in 257 rushes during the season—we'll forget about his two last week against the Colts) Rice, and all will be well.
And then there's Peyton Manning: A coddled domer for the first 13 years of career, he's played infrequently in cold weather and played badly when he's had to. As Jamison Hensley notes:
Manning has never won a playoff game when the temperature at kickoff is below 40 degrees, losing in the postseason at New England (twice) and at the New York Jets. He threw one touchdown and seven interceptions in those games for a 46.2 passer rating, according to ESPN Stats & Information.
To adjust to the colder weather, Manning will wear an orange glove on his right hand, a decision that stems from his spinal-fusion surgery last year. The nerve damage has caused weakness in his right arm after the surgery, and the glove helps him improve his grip on the ball, especially in the severe cold weather.
Inspired yet? Manning is no Brett Favre in this respect, and while it won't be an easy game for the quarterback on either side, Joe Flacco has had positive experiences in cold-weather games—the Ravens are 10-7 in them since the Flacco-Harbaugh era began in 2008.
This is a game between two teams playing at conspicuously different levels, so any confusion or sudden adjustments required probably works in favor of the Ravens, who would be expected to lose by double digits all things being equal. Vegas isn't exactly quaking in its collective shoes—the line hasn't changed—but people in Vegas don't understand weather, because casinos don't have windows.
What kind of faces can we expect Peyton Manning to make during this game?
Maybe sort of an incredulous one? He played in a dome for so long that he thinks snow falls when he loses, not the other way around.
The field may be slippery, and old people don't do well in cold weather. Is it possible that America's final glimpse of Ray-Lewis-the-football player (as opposed to Ray-Lewis-the-studio-analyst) will be him writhing on the frigid ground, having re-aggravated one of his sundry injuries?
Yep, seems more likely than if the weather was warm and dry. Here's a mock-up of what that writhing might look like. (Tilt your head so he's horizontal.)
Oh, what's the worst that could happen?
Deadspin contributor Sam Eifling:
Playing outside in weather this nasty is no joke. A few Januaries ago I went skiing with friends north of Denver, on a plum freezing day, at the top of an 8,000-foot mountain. After the sun left it got even colder. Before my last run of the day I remember hearing a report at the top of the mountain that it was 4 degrees out, before wind chill, before the additional wind chill incurred by flinging oneself down a hill at daredevil ski speeds.
In hindsight I probably didn't have the best gear, because for the rest of the night, my fingers tingled. Then they tingled for about two more weeks. The tips and pads of nearly all my fingers were blighted with eerie numb spots; when I typed, I could feel pressure but not sensation, like a fainter version of when your hand falls asleep. Eventually it cleared up, but in the meantime I had time to Google around and find out there's such a thing as "frost nip," a precursor to frostbite.
Frost nip, people. Two weeks to regain feeling in his fingers. And no one even tackled him.
What do players do to keep warm in conditions like these?
The same thing beauty pageant contestants do to keep their smiles frictionless: Petroleum jelly and plenty of it. In 2005, USA Today reported that players often apply "a thin layer of petroleum jelly" to their arms to keep the heat in, and possibly to stay slippery, though there are NFL rules against that and players must use the jelly surreptitiously. A product called Warm Skin also gets passed around locker rooms, as does Tiger Balm. Neither will be enough to really stay warm today, and most players like to wear as little as possible to give opponents less to grab onto.
Players also sometimes wear mittens on the sideline, so keep an eye out for that.
This will probably be a terrible game, won't it?
Sure, probably, but shut up. The beauty of games like these is how ugly they can get—how the disruptive forces of nature can make a boring game into a great one by forcing teams to play against the elements. It's in bad weather that football really earns its stripes as America's best test of toughness (besides war), and it's no coincidence that one of the sport's most legendary games was the Ice Bowl, the NFL Championship played in Green Bay at about −13 °F. A fan died from exposure! 11 marching band members had to be taken to the hospital! And in the arctic conditions that day, football was at it's elemental best. Here's how Packers offensive lineman Jerry Kramer described the Packers' penultimate drive to us recently:
I see that sneak as a responsibility. Whenever I think of it, I think, "Thank God I was able to get the job done." And when I talk about my team, my favorite topic is the drive in the last four-and-a-half minutes of that game. We had the ball for 10 possessions, a total of 31 plays prior to that drive, and we had gained negative nine yards. So as we go on the field with four-and-a-half minutes to go, we're 65 yards away.
And I later asked Bart, I said, "What possessed you to think you could score when we hadn't made a yard in the previous 15, 20, 30 minutes, pretty much the whole second half, and it's now 57 below zero?" And he said, "The look in your eyes, the look in Forrest's eyes, the look in Ski's eyes." He said, "I started to say something when I came on the field but I looked at you guys's eyes and you were all looking at me and I knew I didn't need to say anything, so I just said, 'OK, let's go.'"
It may be ugly today—negative nine yards in 10 possessions!—but that means every yard gained will be heroic, instead of just another notch on the stat sheet. And if it ends up being a snoozer, you can still watch the players and feel warm by comparison.